Voluntary Virus Tracking Apps Seek To Get A Grip On The Coronavirus Problem

from the disrupting-involuntary-mass-surveillance dept

Be the surveillance you don’t necessarily want to see in the world. That’s the plan detailed in this report by Thomas Brewster for Forbes. Dozens of countries are kicking around large-scale privacy violations to track the spread of the coronavirus. A handful of other countries are already doing this, including China, India, and Hong Kong.

But if you’re willing to give up your own privacy to help government entities track the virus and monitor those who are infected, there’s an app for that.

It was only last Friday when a team of 14 software engineers and data scientists at little-known health and nutrition startup ZOE started piecing together what would become the hottest coronavirus app on Apple’s App Store by Wednesday: the COVID Symptom Tracker.

Now claiming to have hit 1.2 million downloads in the U.K. alone, it asks people to upload their rough location and the details of any ailment they’re suffering, whether they’re related to coronavirus or not. Even if they don’t have any, users are being asked to share how they’re feeling. All the data is then anonymized by turning names into nonidentifiable codes, before being handed to a team of epidemiologists at King’s College London and the National Health Service.

A purely voluntary monitoring system is vastly preferable to some of the ideas being tossed around by government officials. Governments have a difficult relinquishing control once they’ve acquired it. There’s also the very real possibility of mission creep which would turn harmless disease tracking into warrantless tracking of people’s movements over a long period of time — something law enforcement would love to have, and these agencies are well-versed in the art of parallel construction.

Promising anonymization of data is a non-starter. With a little effort, nearly anyone can be identified even if their identifying info has been stripped from their location data. Considering most of the efforts being made right now rely on voluntary compliance by citizens (handwashing, isolation, social distancing), the relinquishment of location data should also be opt-in, rather than mandated.

Over in Israel, the government is doing a bit of both. The country’s prime minister has already authorized its national security agency to tap into a massive trove of location data to track the spread of the virus. Somewhat redundantly, the Ministry of Health is offering a voluntary virus-tracking app.

In Tel Aviv, Israeli Under 30 alum Omri Moyal has been overseeing the security and privacy of Ministry of Health app Hamagen (or “Protector”), which promises to let users know if they’ve been near infected citizens. He says he believes it’s now hit well over a million downloads—with at least 500,000 recorded on Google’s Play store alone—which would mean a ninth of the entire Israeli population has downloaded the tool since its release late last week.

The difference here is users don’t share their location data with the government. There’s no anonymization either. Users voluntarily hand over info about where they’ve been. In return, they’re notified if someone who’s been in the same locations they have has tested positive for the virus. Meanwhile, the approved surveillance by the Shin Bet intelligence agency continues to hum along in the background, with the agency notifying citizens if they’ve been exposed.

Voluntary efforts like these have yet to take off in the United States, Brewster reports. An app developed by the MIT Media Lab and Harvard University has less than 50,000 downloads so far. Another app developed by Harvard asks for location information from users, but the site’s stats make it clear very few people are visiting it, much less providing information.

Maybe US citizens value their privacy more than the benefits giving it up voluntarily could create. Maybe citizens believe this is still an abstraction, rather than the looming threat it actually is. Whatever the case is, it’s going to be difficult to persuade millions of Americans to opt into a voluntary tracking system — even when most Americans seem indifferent to the incredible amount of tracking being performed by wireless carriers and social media companies 24/7/365. Even so, I’d rather see under-utilized voluntary options than any mandated harvesting of location info by government agencies. There’s no reason to give agencies a new power they’ll be in no hurry to give up once the pandemic threat has passed.

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Comments on “Voluntary Virus Tracking Apps Seek To Get A Grip On The Coronavirus Problem”

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14 Comments
TheJourney (profile) says:

Re: Tracking

Tracking is tracking and with every person who volunteers out of fear ( used to control the masses) we are, that much closer to the finale.
They’re already tracking everyone (without consent) this is just what they need to get consent and get themselves out of major law suits for violations of privacy.
When will everyone learn? When is everyone going to put down their dependency on iPhone and Google?

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Sharing and anonymization

Sharing location information is a necessary evil, and anonymization would be pointless as the purpose of such a program is to identify those who have been infected and with whom they have come in contact with, up to two weeks or so prior to their diagnosis. Both will be necessary for the program to be effective.

The thing is, using such data for other purposes, as well as the destruction of the data when no longer needed for pandemic purposes is what is at question. Unfortunately we have yet to see an example of either a private entity or government who would not take advantage of such a treasure trove of data for more than nefarious, or plainly economic purposes. Trust has gone down the proverbial rabbit hole, with many examples giving evidence for mistrust rather than trust.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Sharing and anonymization

The coronavirus is spread by contact or near contact with someone who is a carrier. When person A is found to have symptoms, rather than wait for an absolute diagnosis, track down all the people person A has been in contact with in the prior two weeks and get them checked, or better still quarantine them for some time period, like two weeks. Then, as a precaution, track down all the people those tracked from person A have had contact with in the prior two weeks. To do this, one needs location history, either by word of mouth or some other means. If everyone (and I mean everyone) has a location tracker on their person, it becomes easy. Word of mouth might miss someone, say behind or off to the side the person being backtracked.

But to reiterate, what else is done with, and how long it is kept is a big problem for these data.

Upstream (profile) says:

Words matter

While "parallel construction" is the common euphemism for the despicable practice of concealing illegally obtained information or evidence used to initiate criminal investigations, I believe the phrase is misleading and does not have sufficiently negative connotations.

There is nothing “parallel” about the practice. Rather it refers to a sequential process whereby illegally obtained information or evidence is used as a reason to initiate a subsequent investigation. These subsequent investigations would have never been undertaken absent the previous illegally obtained information or evidence.

And while the term “construction” generally has positive connotations, the practice is actually very destructive. It is destroying what little privacy rights remain for American citizens, and it is also destroying what little respect remains for the Constitution, in particular, and the rule of law, in general.

I believe "evidence laundering" is a much more accurate term, and has more appropriately negative connotations. And while the practice is clearly wrong, I do not believe it has been made explicitly illegal. It should be.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why are you progressives so eager to censor and dramatize such bullshit? Not just here, Twitter has forced Fox News host Laura Ingraham to take down a tweet reporting on news that the malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine has been used to successfully treat sufferers of the Chinese virus in New York City hospitals.

In a now-deleted tweet, the Fox host reported that “Lenox Hill in New York among many hospitals using Hydroxychloroquine with promising results. One patient was described as “Lazarus” who was seriously ill from COVID-19, already released. #IngrahamAngle”

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Why are you progressives so eager to censor and dramatize such bullshit?"

He says, followed immediately by his own snowflake ass dramatising a minor story.

The reason is simple – right-wingers (for the most part) have been reacting badly to news about hydroxychloroquine, in ways ranging from taking similar-sounding chemicals and getting their idiot asses killed, to panic buying the drug in such quantities that supplies are not available for patients who need it for non-COVID-19 related illnesses. So, Twitter and others have been removing posts that either over-hype the effects of the drug or seem to be pushing some other angle by mentioning it. It’s a sensitive time, so rhetoric needs to be somewhat reigned in to avoid unnecessary damage.

Once again, none of this is a mystery if you bother to look at the facts.

"One patient was described as “Lazarus” who was seriously ill from COVID-19"

Now, that’s dramatising. If you can’t stick to the facts, inject some religious angle to help avoid having people double checking the story.

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